Cooperativism as a youth labor inclusion mechanism. An Argentine case study



Abstract. The topic of youth labor inclusion requires a debate on the problematics of the issue and alternatives to address it. This article presents the findings of a study of the Cooperativa Mundo de Zapatillas XX in Argentina, a social economy experience, which was created in the 2000s at a time when a profound restructuring of the organization of salaried labor was taking place. The study focuses on how the cooperative was formed and on the organization of its productive activities and its labor force in order to review its potential as a case that includes a high proportion of young workers. Qualitative methodology was employed consisting of semi-structured interviews in addition to surveys. The findings identify the characteristics that make this cooperative a space for training and labor insertion which is open to young people without previous experience.

Keywords: Youth labor; cooperation; social economy; employment opportunity; Argentina.


For decades, unemployment, and to an even greater extent, increases in labor precariousness and informality have affected all workers, but particularly the young. The contributions of the social sciences to issues of labor inclusion, and the ways they can approached, are a matter for ongoing debate in Argentina and Latin America in the context of studies about today’s youth. Still, few authors are interested in looking at self-management, cooperativism, and different forms of alternative work when analyzing this structural problem. Nevertheless, without wishing to generalize about the extent of these types of activities, we believe that they are experiences which serve to promote reflection.

This analysis is part of the debates about labor market transformations, the employment crisis, and alternative forms of work. It presents preliminary results from a research study entitled “Social Economy as an Alternative Form of Labor: Dilemmas, Limitations, and Potentialities in the Context of Globalization (2015-2017),” whose objective is to analyze cooperativism in Argentina today. This particular article seeks to look more closely at the participation of youth in this type of experience, and at the relationship of this participation to labor inclusion of young people.

The work is based on a case study of the Cooperativa de Trabajo Mundo de Zapatillas XX,3 a Santa Fe cooperative specializing in the production of footwear. It currently has 40 members, most of them young workers, and since its establishment it has offered various types of job training to the public. To carry out our analysis, we decided to use an exploratory descriptive qualitative methodology. The data were collected using various instruments: semi-structured interviews and surveys4 administered to the members of the cooperative. Five interviews were conducted with founding members, and a survey was administered to each worker.5 These activities were complemented by a documentary analysis of reports from the cooperative and the government programs in which the cooperative participated.

Taking into account the character of this experience, our guiding questions include: what was the genesis of the cooperative and what where the key characteristics of its formation?; what are the particularities of its production model, organizational dynamic, and forms of labor?; what are characteristics of the jobs taken on recently, framed in the social economy sector?; and does the cooperative offer an alternative for youth labor?

The first sections of this article provide the context and the central characteristics of the social solidarity economy and cooperatives in Argentina. The article then goes on to describe the situation and problematics of youth in the labor market, as well as perspectives on public policies intended to achieve labor inclusion. Taking this into account, we move on to focus on the case studied, noting the overall structure of the cooperative and analyzing the interviews carried out. The article concludes by providing brief reflections based on the particularities of the case analyzed here.6

1.The social solidarity economy in the last decades in Argentina

The concept of a “social solidarity economy” (SSE) originated more than a century ago, and its most important characteristics include: (a) the supremacy of life and work over capital, promoting the distribution of surpluses among members along with productive and communal reinvestment; (b) a rationale based not on maximizing private profit but on the satisfaction of needs rather than accumulation; (c) decision-making based on democratic and participative methods; (d) demographic composition of a series of actors and organizations that have an cooperative character and are not isolated individuals, etc.7 (Coraggio, 2011, p. 81).

More recently, the concept of a social solidarity economy has become more popular and reflects the resurgence and transformation of these old ideas in the context of increasing unemployment in recent decades. In Argentina, the SSE is closely linked with the impact on the labor market and living conditions of the changes produced by globalization. In this country, as in most of Latin America, globalization arrived in the 1970s at the same time as neoliberal models began to be implemented, and then became established in the 1990s.

Since the 1990s, economic policies implemented in Argentina have included so-called “structural reforms” as well as a series of other measures such as commercial-financial opening and privatization of public enterprises, at the same time as there was increasing concentration of capital and production along with the redirection of investment to financial speculation and the tertiary sector. Taken together, these developments, along with others, led to the closing of numerous small and medium-sized enterprises at the same time that large firms reorganized their production processes and got rid of a considerable number of workers. All of this reconfigured the labor market and increased the rates of unemployment, underemployment, informality, and various independent forms of employment (Azpiazu, Basualdo, & Schorr, 2001).

At the beginning of the 2000s, Argentina experienced a deep economic recession that had a significant negative effect on the standard of living of its population: in 2002, the poverty rate was 55% and the extreme poverty rate was 25%. This critical situation led to an increase in the creation of new experiences within the framework of the social solidarity economy—led by a variety of actors such as social movements, grassroots organizations, and family groups looking for survival strategies—and to the resurgence of cooperatives/benefit societies as well as the emergence of enterprises bought out by their workers, among other developments. Verbeke argues that “The specificity of the self-managed enterprise that is characteristic of worker cooperatives has generated special interest in Argentina since the 1990s, and especially after the crisis of 2001, because it provides an alternative to the hierarchized production model of the traditional enterprise”8 (Verbeke, 2009, p. 1).

The social solidarity economy has acquired a space in the public agenda that is reflected in a variety of policies implemented. For instance, at the beginning of 2000, there was a reconfiguration of social policies for the population living in poverty, which now included support for the development of productive projects promoting an inclusion model based on work and linked to the social economy (Castelao Caruana, 2016).9 Thus, these practices are being promoted and accompanied by public policies implemented by various government bodies on the national and local levels. The relevant policies include financing through subsidies or microcredits to acquire raw materials (inputs) or machines; policies to promote commercialization or supply chains between ventures; and policies focused on training and strengthening organizational processes, among others.

Among the experiences to have increased in recent decades are cooperatives. These are organizations that provide an alternative form of salaried employment since they are autonomous associations of individuals who have voluntarily come together to satisfy their needs and common economic, social, and cultural aspirations through a democratically managed joint-ownership enterprise (Alianza Cooperativ a Internacional, 1995, cited by Fardelli & Voutto, 2014).

Cooperatives and civil associations can both be considered SSE organizations that have a dual character: democratic, because of their form of governance; and economic, because of their activity. In Argentina, there are various types of cooperatives: services, worker, housing, among others. According to the National Institute of Associativism and Social Economy (Instituto Nacional de Asociativismo y Economía Social, INAES), there are currently 12,760 cooperatives in Argentina, mostly in Buenos Aires, CABA (Autonomous City of Buenos Aires), Córdoba, Santa Fe, and Tucumán, and the majority are worker cooperatives (WC).10

Cooperativism in Argentina is nothing new, having existed for centuries. Moreover, its development has been marked by different characteristics in different historical periods (Montes & Ressel, 2003). For example, since the end of the last century, the pace of creation of worker cooperatives evolved slowly, especially in the 1990s, and “starting in 2000 a rate of unprecedented growth began” (Vuotto, 2011, p. 17).

According to Vuotto (2011), there are two stages in the growth of this form of organization. First, toward the end of the Convertability Plan, enterprises were bought out by workers in processes that involved varying degrees of conflict and which were resolved in a variety of ways. Then, starting in 2003, public policies were implemented to promote cooperativism as a tool to create jobs. Based on this development, Vuotto maintains that “the configuration of the sector began to be significantly modified when the first worker cooperatives were established in the province of Buenos Aires by way of promotion by the national government through the Federal Housing Emergency Program [Programa Federal de Emergencia Habitacional, 2003], which was later extended to other provinces” (2011, p. 19). The later implementation of various programs changed the panorama of the social economy in certain ways, since cooperatives became concentrated in Buenos Aires, and their activities centered on housing, social and health infrastructure, as well as the maintenance of public spaces. “In this new universe, 7,315 recently-formed cooperatives coexisted with 984 traditional ones of which 584 were created before 2000 and remained active” (Voutto, 2011, p. 19). However, apart from this data, there are no official figures regarding the number of youth taking part in the social economy. There is a scarcity both of information about the population in this sector, and of several variables that would be of statistical interest for understanding the profile and characteristics of the sector.

2.Youth and employment in Argentina

The issues discussed here lie at the intersection of various areas of research: transformations in the social process of work; the crisis in the labor market and alternative models of production; precariousness and informality as two key aspects of the problematics of labor inclusion of today’s youth.

With the decline of salaried society and the proliferation of various forms of work—unstable, precarious, short term, etc.—a situation of uncertainty has arisen, in particular for youth, in which work has faltered as the great structuring agent of one’s productive years. Finishing school is no longer a guarantee for access to or permanence in the labor market; life stories tend to be less linear, more complex, and the processes of transition to adulthood less structured (Casal, 1996; Pérez Islas, 2008).

Due to changes in the labor market, youth—in a greater proportion than adults—accept jobs of lesser quality, without benefits. Youth employment has been informalized, terciarized, and precarized (Tockman, 1997; Diez de Medina, 2001). In addition, high turnover has become one of the main problems related to labor insertion among this sector (Weller, 2008; Maurizio, 2011).

Of course, highly heterogeneous situations can be found among this age group: less educated youth and those who come from lower-income sectors generally encounter more difficulties when it comes to labor insertion (Miranda & Otero, 2005).

According to the most recent census: the National Population Census, Households and Housing 2010 (Censo Nacional de Población, Hogares y Vivienda de 2010, INDEC), in Argentina there are 9,082,984 young people between 15 and 29 years of age,11 which represents one-third of the total Argentine population of 40,091,359.12 Mapping reveals that their situation is complex; for example, the number of households with unmet basic needs (UBN) that include young people is 13.7%, versus 9.1% for the rest of the population (2010). And while the number of poor youth has dropped significantly (by a little more than 20%) since 2001, the number remains high.

In the case of labor indicators, during the previous decade there was a significant decline in the number of unemployed youth, but nonetheless they were still at a disadvantage in comparison to the rest of the population. According to Fridman (2015), in 2013, youth unemployment was over 8% (Table 1), a rate that despite marking a clear improvement over the previous decade,13 remains approximately 2 points higher than that of the total population (6.4%). As has often been noted, youth tend to be the first to be fired when there are crises and the last to be hired during economic upturns.

Table 1
The labor conditions of youth, 18 to 29 years of age, 2003 and 2013 (%)



Salaried, unregistered*

Salaried, nonpermanent











*Off-the-books employment.
Source: Fridman (2015, p. 42).

As indicated above, in addition to the rate of unemployment, the issue of the quality of youth employment has to be considered (Tockman, 1997). In fact, in Argentina, the quality of work has been a persistent problem: in 2013, almost half of all salaried youth were not registered (off-the-books employees). And while the number of youth in this category has decreased notably in comparison to previous years (Table 1), it is still worrisome.

Another factor that has to be kept in mind in relation to the greater difficulties for young people on the labor market is the high degree of rotation in their labor trajectories. While this may be due to both macrosocial and subjective factors, which may lead them to voluntarily leave a job (Jacinto & Chitarroni, 2009; Fridman & Otero, 2015), almost 20% of salaried young people work with a temporary contract, a figure that is double that of salaried adults. While the time it takes youth who have been laid off to find employment does not differ from that of older adults, youth still become unemployed more often; that is, the chief problem is that they spend less time at each job (OIT, 2008).

Various authors link this job instability to the sectors in which youth generally work, which are characterized by greater mobility, especially services and retail sales (Busso & Peréz, 2015).

There is notable heterogeneity among youth, in that those with less formal education tend to enter jobs in sectors that have lower levels of productivity and lower income. In addition, youth who are heads of household tend to accept lower quality jobs because of the urgency of finding work, while other youth can wait for a good job.

High job rotation tends to decline over the years, which may be an indicator of tendencies to accumulate experience and knowledge, enabling access to better jobs (Weller, 2008). In research on the labor market in 2003-2013, Fridman (2015) found that almost 20% of salaried youth had a fixed-term job versus 10% among salaried adults. Nevertheless, for some youth with a lower level of education and fewer resources, rotation between precarious and unstable jobs becomes a constant over time (Fridman & Otero, 2015).

Table 2
Fixed-term jobs, salaried 18 to 30 year olds and salaried adults, 2013 (%)

Employed, 18 to 30 years old

Employed, over 30 years old







* Includes casual labor, temporary work (by task or job), and substitution for others.
** Includes permanent, stable jobs.
Compiled by authors.

Therefore, the quality of work and, to a lesser extent, unemployment, continue to be a problem for youth, even in a context of economic growth such as that which took place in Argentina between 2004 and 2013.

3.Problematics and approaches to public policies and youth inclusion

In the previous section we described the structural aspects of the labor situation of Argentine youth; here, we review the public policy solutions suggested to address this situation.

The majority of approaches and concrete actions have focused on increasing the rates of graduation from school and on vocational training, with the objective of improving the employability of youth. Both historically and at present, many plans and programs related to improving youth labor inclusion are centered on education and training. Other measures are centered on opportunities for insertion through a specific type of experience; for example, internships. To a lesser extent, options in both areas combined together are also considered. These are the traditional approaches used to formulate public policies to promote the labor and social inclusion of youth.

Some strategic lines of action are linked to: (a) the development of assistance and mentoring on job-related issues, including spaces for training as well as training in private enterprises or voluntary associations; (b) strengthening and expanding microcredit networks for the sector; (c) the creation of jobs that are not linked to productive activities, known as “proximity jobs,” which include sport, cultural, community, recreational, and other similar activities (Lo Vuolo, 2002; Arroyo, 2014); and (d) reinforcement and/or creation of schools for training or professionalization, using approaches that are flexible and linked to economies that promote the development of local production.

Local authors suggest that preparing the interventions aimed at contributing to youth labor inclusion means simultaneously dealing with tensions on two levels: that of supply (the absence of an ideal supply with the experience, skills, and qualifications to occupy the positions offered by the labor market); and that of demand, that is, underemployment, overemployment, and high levels of unemployment in the types of jobs youth have. Arroyo (2014) proposes that the main problems associated with youth labor, such as unemployment, informality, and precariousness, arise at these intersections; consequently, it is necessary to take into account both levels—supply and demand—in order to promote social policies.

Arroyo also argues that it is necessary, on the one hand, to promote policies that generate jobs and stimulate the creation of new productive structures such as enterprises; and, on the other, to implement protective actions in the face of precarious and illegal working conditions, and/or other forms of labor exploitation. And, in the case of strategies specifically linked to the development of associative cooperative activities, there is a need for policies that seek to establish positive synergies, articulating a generational interchange with the protagonism of youth. Arroyo refers to “trans-generational strategies” that, in addition to strengthening the productive system, avoid the segmentation of spaces exclusively for youth or adults as if they were different strata of society without contact with each other (2014, p. 67).

In the intersection of policies and the social solidarity economy, it is also important to generate habits and promote a work culture that encourages shared values, such as solidarity among members/workers; strengthen democracy as a vital aspect of the workplace; and reinforce the effort to achieve consensus in decision-making regarding work, production, etc.

In addition, these types of initiatives should take into consideration the need to eliminate the legal barriers and credit restrictions that today impede the expansion of associative initiatives, and provide these initiatives with technical, legal, and instrumental support to make them viable in the long-term.

It should be noted that there are many authors who analyze cases of youth entrepreneurship in Latin America in general (Jaramillo & Parodi, 2003; Jaramillo, 2004) and in Argentina in particular (Camiletti & Flores, 2015; Oficialdegui, 2016; Otero, 2010, 2015, among many others). Nevertheless, we think that the social solidarity economy, as a robust option with which to respond to the employment problems of youth, has been given scarce attention, possibly because the classical ways of conceiving the labor market persist both in academia and among politicians; that is, the emphasis continues to be on the insertion of youth into the labor market as formal, salaried employees, so that they have safe and stable jobs, even though the data demonstrate that very few young persons are able to find a job in a relation of dependency and that, when they do, it is unlikely that these jobs will be long-lasting, skilled or unprecarious.

In addition, some experts, such as Jaramillo, state that some of the difficulties associated with implementing large-scale intervention programs that promote SSE experiences for youth stem from the fact that “not all youth want or are predisposed to be entrepreneurs,” making it difficult for this to be a solution to unemployment. Based on results of fieldwork, the same author also argues that it necessary to provide personalized technical assistance and training to small groups in order for the accompaniment of these experiences to be effective, which is another obstacle to large-scale implementation. Jaramillo also argues that given the inexperience of young people, among other factors, investment in this kind of activity is not only risky but also requires considerable initial capital, while few of these enterprises are able to achieve long-term continuity on the market (Jaramillo, 2004, p. 55).

From our point of view, the question is not to propose the SSE as the only way of dealing with the problem of labor inclusion nor to hide the difficulties faced by these types of initiatives but rather to take them into consideration as one of the available options. Thus, cooperatives (the case under analysis) are not considered here as the key to fighting unemployment or precariousness, which are structural phenomena characterizing the labor market; rather, cooperatives exist within the framework of globalized capitalism and interact with actors that operate under the rationale of market competition, which often conditions the sustainability of cooperatives over time. But we believe that these are experiences that can generate spaces for the participation of youth who are just beginning their working life and that, in an analytical sense, can provide material to investigate the relationship between youth and work.

It only remains to be said that—as noted above—in Argentina, the government implemented a large number of public policies intended to promote the social solidarity economy. However, few of these were specifically targeted at the inclusion of youth in these experiences (with the exception of the Ministry of Social Development’s Incluir program, which existed between 2004 and 2006).

Now that an overview of youth and labor inclusion has been provided, the next sections will analyze the case study.

4.The experience of a cooperative in Santa Fe

In this section, various aspects of this experience are described: its process of creation, production and commercialization, and internal organization and composition.

As noted above, the cooperative is different from the traditional capitalist enterprise because it is a voluntary association of individuals who share in the property of a productive unit and manage it democratically, through participative decision-making. In addition, in cooperatives, the principles that prevail are distinct from those of a capitalist economy, including the supremacy of life and work over capital and the satisfaction of needs before accumulation.

The Cooperativa de Trabajo Mundo de Zapatillas XX Ltda. is a production unit that makes shoes, especially sneakers. It is located in a town in the province of Santa Fe, which is an industrial hub in this sector. The creation of the cooperative was the product of persistent work by people living in this area in coordination with the municipality and different bodies on the national level. Although the cooperative was created in the mid-2000s, it has considerable antecedents in training activities.14 Specifically, its creation followed a vocational training project that was started in 2003 by a group of local residents in order to plan training strategies in the area, keeping in the mind the high rate of unemployment, especially among the youth. With regard to the foundational moment of the project, they told us:

The project didn’t begin as a cooperative but rather as a trade training center, seeing as there was a social shortcoming in our area and I think in most of the country, and that there were no trades courses but there were many [for] pre-school teachers, business management. Really, I think that there were more pre-school teachers than children of pre-school age. And well, we didn’t start with footwear, we started, we started with more general things, there was a course on footwear, on security, among other things, always looking for what was lacking in society. So, we trained people so they could get a job; later, footwear, it was big here, it ate up everything else, and it became practically just a school for footwear. Footwear had a particularity, because here it is like the capital of footwear […] and it had a particularity, it was growing a lot and at the same time the people who were here were very old. So, not only would new people be needed but the old ones would be retiring […] (Interviewee no. 1, founding member).

So, they started offering courses in different trades but finally focused on footwear since it was the trade in greatest demand in this area. The courses were taught at a school provided by the municipality, which at first financed them, until after a few years, the project received support from the national Ministry of Labor. In 2006, two of the organizers started a cooperative, together with five unemployed individuals who had attended the training sessions. Initially, they operated out of the school where the training was carried out. Then in 2007, they were able to move to their own premises and, with 14 workers, decided to formalize their cooperative.

From November to August we worked at the school, there were 14 of us […] in November it was already crazy because the school was already organized; imagine: in the afternoon, the courses, in the morning, work […]. And, well, in August of 2007 we got, through Manos a la Obra, we rented a warehouse and, with a subsidy, we bought our own machines and we moved to a warehouse, which was rented, but ours, until 2011 when we moved to a bigger one (Interviewee no. 1, founding member).

The words of the members demonstrate the importance of government support in obtaining a physical space, both at the beginning and when they had to respond to the growth of the organization.

Through the Ministry of Social Development’s Manos a la Obra program, the cooperative acquired machines for the production process: for cutting, sewing, assembling, and gluing the materials. They continued to grow and attract more members, leading in 2011 to a move to a larger warehouse. From that point the number of members went on rising to about 60, but then decreased to 40 by 2016.

At the same time, the cooperative continued with the trade training. In 2009, together with the Ministry of Labor, they officially established a training institute, the Centro de Formación para la Industria del Calzado “Eva Perón,” whose mission is to train new candidates for the shoe industry, with a view to possible later entry into the cooperative. The center teaches theoretical-practical courses for approximately 100 students in courses for shoe manufacturing operatives, cut-out-marking machine operators, and standard machine stitchers. The courses are open to people who have finished either elementary school or high school, or who at least can read and write and have a knowledge of mathematics.15

While the cooperative was able to position itself and, to a certain extent, become autonomous from the government bodies with which it worked, still—like every production unit—its viability is conditioned by socioeconomic conditions, especially since it is in a sector facing competition from imports. Thus, in recent years, it has generated less income due to a fall in sales and, at the time that the interviews were carried out, production had fallen to (approximately) 800 pairs a month.

One factor in its favor is that—in contrast to many cooperatives that were consolidated during the previous decade—this production unit was never a supplier to the government and therefore avoided becoming dependent on government programs for the placement of its products on the market. On this point, the president of the cooperative stated:

We do not want to [sell to the government] because it’s a dependence that’s a little tough and because from one day to another you end up with nothing. You need to have many customers. If we have many, and the government is one of them, then that’s ok (Interviewee no. 1, founding member).

Nevertheless, one factor that works against the cooperative is that its training courses are currently suspended because of a lack of government financing. As we noted earlier, these courses provide trained replacements when a member decides to leave the cooperative:

[…] no, there is no financing. And if there were, yes they [the courses] would return, because we also depend on them, because what we do is, we prepare courses and we give people the opportunity to become members. They get a more internal training, working here, and then they decide to stay here or go to the various factories nearby (Interviewee no. 1, founding member).

In summary, the cooperative has attained a level of profitability that allows it to be independent of state subsidies, but, in the medium term, the lack of financing for training is a possible obstacle to further growth.

The cooperative produces approximately 800 pairs of shoes of seven different models a day under the brand of another enterprise; that is, it participates in outsourcing (the manufacture of a product at the request of a third party). It also produces 100 pairs under its own brand, in three different models, and plans to develop new products such as backpacks, wallets, jackets, shirts, hats, key chains, etc. Thus, all indications are that this is a project that is expanding: in addition to protective footwear for the industrial sector, it works as a provider for large enterprises in the sector and continues to expand its customer list.

The cooperative has registered its own brand, Vichino, through participation in a Ministry of Social Development program.16 Today its members are trained to carry out the entire shoe manufacturing process: pre-assembly, cutting, preparation, molding, and sewing. The ultimate objective is to enter the commercial market, which is led by more established firms, and stop selling to other enterprises. The cooperative’s products are sold through its own sellers in Arroyo Seco, Villa Constitución, San Nicolás, Rosario, Misiones, Corrientes, Chaco, Entre Ríos, Mar del Plata, and Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, they reach all of Patagonia through distributors, and sell on the internet through a Facebook account.

In terms of its internal organization, the cooperative has designed and established a system for incorporating new workers and members. The system determines earnings by assigning value to working hours through four categories, allowing for consideration of the type of work done;17 in general, differences between the categories depend on the complexity of the machinery operated by each worker in the production process.

Everyone works the same hours: from 6 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. The tasks of the members are rotated; in fact, according to those interviewed, everyone does everything. This strategy ensures that all the positions can be covered independently of whether any particular worker is able to come to work on a given day, so that the quantity produced daily does not vary. Thus, generally speaking, all members know how to run all the machines (which seems to be the goal, according to the interviewees). Those who have worked as machine operators for six months are moved to the work bench; and those who have worked at the work bench are given simple machine work. Thus, progressively, everyone learns and can carry out different tasks.

Those who join are placed on probation for three months, during which time the worker’s skills and abilities for the work are evaluated, as is their integration into the group. They become members through an official document issued by the Administrative Council of the cooperative. After joining, the new member can advance to a higher category depending on his/her abilities and commitment to the group project.

Every six months, profits are evaluated and a sum is set aside for improvements—purchase of materials and machinery. The rest is divided among the members; that is, surplus earnings—independently of monthly income—are divided semiannually. Everyone receives a share of the profits as established, according to their category, seniority, and commitment, and this is announced during a general meeting of the cooperative.

Members’ income is linked to the earnings of the cooperative, which is sometimes higher than the basic market basket of goods and sometimes lower.

It should be noted that the cooperative’s activities are formalized through registration of each of its members as autonomous workers taxed under the monotributista tax regime.18 Although the cooperative does the paperwork, the registration continues to be individual. While its members are monotributistas, the cooperative has signed an agreement with a well-known health insurance company to guarantee good healthcare for everyone:

We have to work hard to have a distribution which is more or less good in order to live more or less well and to have a mutual. Today we have Swiss Medical for all the young people. When anyone has a problem, they are hospitalized for free with room for someone to accompany them, with food, they don’t pay anything, and we achieved this by fighting with the health insurance company and at a special rate, and we went on getting these things until we had insurance […] (Interviewee no. 2, founding member).

When it comes to collective decision-making practices, according to the interviewees, the general meeting space is respected as much as possible, given the ups and downs of daily life. For example, the cooperative holds one general meeting a month, although their statutes stipulate these should be held every 15 days. In addition, the question of meetings is complex, due to the daily demands of the rhythm of production and fluctuations in orders, in addition to other factors such as “working with young people who are not eager to attend often, who hold themselves back, are afraid” (Interviewee no. 3, founding member).

For this reason, according to the information collected from the interviews, efforts are made to promote participation and give a voice to youth outside of formal spaces “but apart from the general meetings let’s say once a month, he [the president] is present, every week and comes and asks “how are we doing?” (Interviewee no. 3, founding member).

Thus, despite the impossibility of all members attending all the formal meetings, there is fluid contact between the president and the members, through informal listening spaces.

Of course, the cooperative is not free of conflicts. One of these has to do with the generation gap:

Let’s say that a person who is 50, say [Maby] is working at the work bench, she is 52 and working at the bench with two guys who are 18, and says: come on, come on, come on, in order to get into a rhythm, but in order to get through to the peers, and so they don’t hurry […] and one thing, and the other […] discussions that […] happen everywhere […] Interviewee no. 3, founding member).

Finally, it is worth recognizing the work that is done to favor the inclusion of youth who come from marginalized areas into a space where democratic organization and the integration of workers is promoted rather than competition.

They finish learning the value of cooperation inside because we provide general training and the individual who wants something other than a cooperative has to come and work. What we aim at a lot is to view and strengthen the aptitude that often […] the aptitude to do something [….] A person can be very good and not feel like [doing something], or does not have an attitude [favoring] work and always ends up taking longer and, always ends up harming the group. We always emphasize the group, so the person who enters has not only to think about themselves but think about the other. Since it is an effort to get the person on the inside to realize this, when someone enters, one has to help them and not hinder them, bother them, which is what normally happens in companies. That is, I always say, no one likes to go and get treated badly, and if they treated you badly, don’t do the same [to others] (Interviewee no. 1, founding member).

Thus, the cooperative strongly emphasizes a collaborative attitude among workers and the importance of the group—to the detriment of the competitive approach that prevails in the majority of enterprises—which strengthens social ties.

The cooperative is a productive unit that is currently made up of 40 members.19 Young people represent more than 90% of all the members of the Cooperativa Mundo de Zapatillas XX. The distribution by sex is very even, although there are slightly more women. Most became members of the cooperative as a result of the trade training courses taught in the same place where the production unit is located. The majority of the young people have not finished high school, and there are some who did finish but who, in the words of a founding member, do not have the money to look for a job far from their homes or to go to a trade school or university. Of the female members, the majority are single mothers, heads of household. There are many youth for whom this is their first work experience and, in the case of those who have had other jobs, these were not in footwear: normally odd jobs in bricklaying and construction. Even though these are youth who have almost no labor experience, if they leave the cooperative it is generally not for lack of good habits or responsibility, but rather to work in a nearby factory.

When it comes to the founders, one of them has extensive experience in the shoe trade and this individual’s knowledge of technical issues and the market has proven very useful. The president has work experience related to education in addition to specific knowledge on the management of projects:

I worked for many years in putting together courses in the United Nations, in preparing training courses for workers and other things, something that I like to do (Interviewee no. 1, founding member).

5.The construction process

In addition to the brief description in the previous section, our analysis revealed a series of factors that allowed the cooperative to be sustainable over time and to obtain a certain level of financial profitability from a strictly commercial point of view.20

First, as noted, one of the founding members has a long history in the footwear sector, working in management positions in large firms. Another founding member has considerable experience in the management of projects for youth in national and international entities. Their presence provided the necessary experience for starting up both training activities and production processes. At the same time, because of their backgrounds, they already had a network of clients and providers, which grew after the cooperative started its operations. Thus the capacities of these founding members (who continue to be active workers) stand out in terms of their knowledge of the production process as well as their entrepreneurial capacities (Gaiger, in Vázquez, 2010) for the internal and external management of the cooperative, which favors networks with other local actors.

Second, the specificity of the leather and shoe industry as typical production activities in the area where the cooperative is located has a positive influence. This is true both because the national and municipal governments consider this product to be important for local development and because it is an activity that is known by the local inhabitants, something that contributes to attendance at training activities as well as later performance as workers.

Third, the political dimension or the principle of redistribution is stressed as a factor that contributes to the sustainability of such enterprises (Vázquez, 2010). Starting with its first activities, the development of this productive space had (and still has) significant government support. This support consists of both direct transfer of monies and various inputs: machines, training resources, advisements, etc., which continue to this day. These basic contributions for educational-productive-work activities can be glimpsed in various government plans and programs led by the Ministry of Social Development as well as the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Labor, among others.

Thus, this experience was a process of construction with its own particular characteristics. The original project was based on the provision of training that continues today, and later led to the formation of an alternative workspace as an answer to unemployment and social exclusion.

A series of conditions, such as a territory linked to the footwear industry, a profile of founding members with relevant work experience, as well as strong government support for the project were, and are, outstanding factors.

On the other hand, the cooperative’s guiding and organizational principles and its legal structure correspond to a social economy experience, even though the organization of its productive and commercialization processes is the same as any enterprise; moreover, they have managed to achieve continuity and relative “success” in a market that is clearly competitive. This leads us back to the definition provided by Vuotto (2011, p. 3), which states that cooperatives have a “dual character, democratic and economic.” Thus, they must guarantee economic viability on the basis of the income that they obtain through commercial activities. Their distinctive characteristic is that they must also maintain the complementarity of economic activities and adequate social goals.

In sum, this experience included a series of favorable external factors (economic growth after 1990; public policies promoting the social solidarity economy) together with a series of aspects that were inherent to this experience (geographical location and the historic link with the footwear industry; the expertise and prior work experience of founding members; the establishment/institution of trade training courses, etc.).

Almost a decade on from its creation, the cooperative’s internal structures have evolved and it has expanded. This is reflected both in the fact that workers continue to become members as well as in the incremental growth of production and commercialization.

For these reasons, the interaction between external factors, internal conditions, and the improvement in internal dynamics have led to a favorable combination of factors. At the same time, context and time are what gives a positive meaning to the process of creation of this experience, and continuity and sustainability shape future expectations of consolidation.

Of course, the consolidation of this collective project also faces various obstacles and contradictions. There are factors that contribute to the sustainability of the experience, such as management and articulation capacities; the fact that the sector in which the cooperative operates promotes its insertion into the local productive nexus; and the support provided by public policies. The other side of the coin is that the cooperative faces obstacles in its efforts to place its products in dynamic markets, since it is at a disadvantage in relation to the large firms in its sector; this affects its ability to generate profits and, consequently, the income of its members and working conditions, which then prompts some youth to leave the cooperative. In addition, temporary fluctuations, as well as possible political-economic-institutional changes, can alter the cooperative’s opportunities for development.

When it comes to governmental interventions, there has been little progress in the existing social protection system—this is the central theme of debates about the SSE (Hintze, 2007). At the same time, some authors argue that “In Argentina, the SSE lacks some structures and institutions, meso and macro, which would allow its definition as an alternative project. Among others, these include the absence of a formal legal basis that determines the system of property of the enterprises” (Castelao Caruana, 2016, p. 42).

6.Alternatives, workers, cooperativists

As we mentioned, in their dual role as members and workers, youth represent more than 90% all members of the Cooperativa Mundo de Zapatillas XX. Some of them have not finished high school and the majority entered the cooperative through trade training courses taught at the same site as the production unit. The large presence of youth is related to the goals of the project from its beginnings, since the local area is a center for footwear production and, as the founders point out, the workers in the sector were aging so that “not only were new people needed, but the older ones were about to retire” (Interviewee no. 1, founding member). Spurred by this situation, they created a space for training in one of the trades, and one which could be a future source of work for youth who were just entering the labor market. At the time, there was a profound crisis in Argentina, and the training courses were seen as a bet on the future, an incentive at a time when the economy was falling apart.

The experience analyzed here has an eminently inclusive character. On the one hand, it articulates a process of professional training in a trade, with the possibility of entering the labor market through the cooperative. On the other hand, access to training and work in the cooperative does not exclude those with lower levels of education. These characteristics are particularly relevant given that the majority of cooperative members are youth, precisely those—as noted above—who have the most difficulty entering the labor market, with differentiated opportunities depending on their level of formal education.

More than half of the youth did not have any previous work experience at the time they started working at the cooperative, so this was their first job. One of the most debated issues with regard to the youth labor market is precisely initial entry, which is often conditioned by family and social networks. Studies show that the difficulty of getting a first job is greater when youth have not completed their secondary education, given that they tend to get shorter-lasting and very low quality jobs (Weller, 2008).

The cooperative is also a space for youth to acquire the habits of responsibility associated with the world of work. Different behaviors formerly related to the predominant culture of work were and are currently being widely discussed. Changes in the structure of labor have given rise to subjective questions about the relationship between youth and work among the new generations of workers. Frequently mentioned aspects of this issue are low tolerance for completing working hours and lack of adaptation to the daily rhythm of work, and so on. These habits appear to be alien or, in many cases, at odds with youth lifestyles, especially among the popular sectors. In reference to this, the president of the cooperative stated that they hire youth because they are individuals who work eight hours a day, “which is [due to] the education that the cooperative provided them” (Interviewee no. 1, founding member).

The viewpoint expressed by this founding member is not far from a view of work as a disciplinary order, focusing on labor conduct acquired through the contributions of the cooperative while revealing the obstacles encountered. It emphasizes the role of work training which permits the acquisition of experience related to the world of work, rather than the values which the cooperative allows them to strengthen, such as collective labor and solidarity.

Another factor to be analyzed is that work in the cooperative offers continuity over time, that is, it constitutes stable entry into the market. The labor relationship is terminated at the decision of members, who decide for themselves to leave when they think they have a better opportunity, generally at local footwear companies. This labor stability provides another contrast to the current situation of youth in the labor market, which is normally characterized by rotation and/or mobility between precarious jobs that are usually short-lived. It is often the case that youth are the last to be hired during an economic boom and the first to be fired when there is an economic crisis. Nevertheless, when the cooperative is affected by the macroeconomic situation, the resulting difficulties can lead to changes in the income of workers although does not directly result in a reduction in the number of workers.

At the same time, the fact that some youth leave their jobs at the cooperative to go to a company opens up the question as to whether they consider alternative self-management work as a space where they can find professional fulfillment, or whether they see it as short-term activity to be carried out until they find a salaried job in the formal market. It must be taken into account that most join the cooperative without knowing what this implies and only become familiar with it through their participation. In the interviews with those in charge of the training sessions, they note that cooperative values are learned once workers become members because the training concentrates on the trade they are learning. In any case, they point out that they endeavor to potentialize solidarity:

Sometimes someone can be very good, but if they don’t have an aptitude for the work, they end up harming the group; we focus on the work group. The person who joins has to think about others (Interviewee no. 2, founding member).

The training provided does not have a conceptual focus on what a cooperative signifies as a mode of organizing production; nevertheless, the values emphasized reflect a practice which is oriented to search for solidarity in the construction of an “us” among the members. In this sense, it is evident that they are aiming at a model of worker, at a work culture that promotes the construction of the collective, and which differs from the competitiveness that predominates as the main guiding principle in the hegemonic mode of operation of the labor market in globalized capitalism.

In light of this analysis, this cooperative can be seen is an alternative space that generates work for youth in Santa Fe. Among other things, participation in the cooperative: (a) favors formation and training, (b) promotes a certain margin of stability, and (c) makes labor insertion viable, even when it is the worker’s first experience. At the same time, it provides contact with an alternative that is based on collective practices shared among member/workers, based on values linked to solidarity, democracy, and responsibility.

7.Final reflections

The situation in Argentina at the end of the 1990s was characterized by economic and social crises that led to an expansion of alternatives related to the social economy. The creation of the cooperative studied here was linked to these developments and came after the aforementioned crisis. An experience in training led to the formation of a consolidated work cooperative, when a series of conditions and characteristics, including the sector in which it operates, the characteristics of its founding members, and strong government support, came together to define its profile.

One of the distinctive characteristics of the Mundo de Zapatillas XX Ltda. cooperative is the presence of young members, the very sector of the population most vulnerable to the multiple exiting problems in the labor market, as described above. From the point of view of social policies, the concern for youth labor inclusion is a latent issue, although up till today, the policies implemented to deal with structural problems present severe limitations. Therefore, we believe it is essential to reflect on this issue in more depth and propose concrete actions within a broader and more comprehensive strategy that includes different lines of action, among multiple other interventions that take into account the possibility of increasing the promotion and mentoring of cooperative productive enterprises such as the case described here.

As we have seen, this experience (a) emphasizes formation and training; (b) allows for the initiation or continuance of a working life and acquisition of labor experience related to a trade; (c) provides a certain degree of stability to the member/worker; (d) provides an alternative based on collective practice that stimulates belonging to an “us” and stresses the importance of the collective, linked to cooperative principles. In addition, this alternative is open to youth without prior working experience, and even those with a low level of education. For those who have just entered the job market, it provides their first decent and stable job based on values of solidarity.

Of course, possibilities are more limited the greater the economic and institutional instability in Argentina, which make sustainability and continuity difficult, including for cooperative enterprises. The panorama that has opened up in the last few months calls for a renewal of forms of labor inclusion for youth amid a worrisome situation.


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1 Doctoral student in Social Sciences at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. Holds a Masters in the Design and Management of Social Policies and Programs (FLACSO) and a Professional Degree in Sociology (UBA).

2 Holds a Doctorate in Social Sciences (FLACSO), a Masters in Design and Management of Social Policies and Programs (FLACSO), and a Professional Degree in Sociology (UBA). Researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales de América Latina (IICSAL) (CONICET-FLACSO), Adjunct Researcher at CONICET, and Senior Researcher at FLACSO’s (Argentina) Programa Juventud.

3 Given that we provide information on a specific experience and keeping in mind the ethical considerations involved in qualitative research, it was decided to change the name of the cooperative discussed in this article.

4 The survey instrument included a series of closed questions intended to obtain data about a variety of issues, including educational background, previous working experience, and trajectories in the cooperative. In addition, there were questions related to age, sex, marital status, household composition, etc.

5 Initially, a larger field study was envisioned which was to include interviews with young members. However, budgetary constraints made it impossible to make the journeys required to carry these out. It should also be noted that when the survey was administered, two workers were absent and so did not fill it out. The founding members, men and women, are between 30 and 50 years old. One of these women is the person who teaches the training courses, and was initially trained in courses that existed before the cooperative was founded.

6 Other analyses of this case by the authors can be found in: Fridman, V., & Otero, A. (2019). Economía social y sostenibilidad: aportes sobre condiciones y tensiones a partir de una experiencia argentina. In M. L. Jiménez Guzmán (Coord.), ¿Formas alternativas de trabajo en el mundo globalizado? (Comp.). Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Centro Regional de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias, Cuernavaca; and in Fridman, V., & Otero, A. (2019). Cooperativismo e inclusión laboral joven. Una experiencia argentina actual. Trabajo y Sociedad, 32, 609-624.

7 In addition, following the same author, the work involved favors the development of capacities over efficiency, defined as the maximization of individual profits, and promotes the access by workers to the means of production by way of property or possession/usufruct (Coraggio, 2011, p. 81).

8 All translations from Spanish in this article are by Apuntes.

9 Currently, as a result of the election of a government with openly neoliberal characteristics, Argentina faces a new situation and the probability of significant changes to the process underway (an estimated 1,400,000 Argentinians have fallen into poverty in recent months, and more than 127,000 had lost their jobs).

10 “In Argentina, WC are associations of individuals whose objective is to pool the resources required to jointly carry out a professional activity, combining them with their own labor force in a productive unit that they organize for this purpose and orienting their products and services under conditions that allow them to renew their means of production and, at the same time, assure their subsistence” (Vienney, 1980, quoted in Vuotto, 2011, p. 14).

11 Usually, “youth” is defined as those between 14 and 24 years of age, but transformations in the situation of youth allows for the extension of the upper age limit to individuals up to 30 years old. Three groups can be discerned: mid-adolescent youth (between 15 and 19), late-adolescent youth (between 20 and 24), and adult youth (between 25 and 29).

12 While Argentina has one of the lowest percentages of youth in the region due to a decrease in the birth rate and an increase in life expectancy, it is still the highest percentage that the country has ever had (OIT, 2008).

13 When it comes to the relationship between youth unemployment and education level, the data show that the rate of unemployment of those who finished high school is not very different from those who did not finish, but there is a significantly lower rate of unemployment among those who have a higher education. In terms of the employment rate, this is somewhat higher among those that finished high school than those who did not but, above all, the employment rate is highest among those that have a higher education.

14 This and the following section were prepared on the basis of an analysis of our interviews, in addition to the cooperative’s documents and reports of governmental bodies.

15 The courses are part of the Network of Continuous Education of the national Ministry of Labor and provide training which is accredited with an official certificate. The Ministry of Labor provides funds to pay the teachers by the hour and for daily expenses and the costs of managing and coordinating the project. The cooperative provides logistics, advertising, course registrations, and announcements.

16 The Marca Colectiva program. It was implemented in 2009 through Law 26355/2008.

17 One example of this is that an operator of a machine with two needles cannot receive the same amount as someone who only knows how to use a more simple machine. In any case, workers are able to train on more complex machinery outside working hours, which would allow them to change categories.

18 In Argentina, the monotributo (1998) refers to a form of tax regime available to individuals or legal entities. It should be noted that those subject to this regime make retirement and health insurance payments.

19 The information on membership was obtained during the authors’ fieldwork.

20 As Ferrández-Herranz points out, cooperatives, “as market enterprises, behave in a similar way as the rest of the firms with which they compete, but their actions are always characterized by the goal of serving their members, by their democratic and self-management practices, and by the primacy of individuals and work over production resources” (Ferrández Herranz, 2000, p. 11). Translation by Apuntes.